Horses could save Arctic permafrost

As permafrost soils in the Arctic thaw, large additional quantities of greenhouse gases could be released. In Russia, experiments are now being conducted in which herds of horses, bison and reindeer are being used to combat this effect.

A study from University of Hamburg has shown how herds of horses, bison and reindeer could combat the effects of greenhouse gases released as Arctic permafrost thaws. If no action is taken to prevent it, half of the world’s permafrost will thaw by 2100.

According to experiments conducted over the past 20 years in Russia, snow cover is scattered and compressed thanks to grazing animals’ stamping hooves. This dramatically reduces its insulating effect, intensifying the freezing of the permafrost.

“This type of natural manipulation in ecosystems that are especially relevant for the climate system has barely been researched to date – but holds tremendous potential,” explained Prof. Christian Beer from the University of Hamburg, in a statement.

For his study, Beer used a special climate model that can simulate temperature processes on the land surface over the course of an entire year. The results show that if emissions continue to rise unchecked, we can expect to see a 3.8-degree Celsius increase in permafrost temperatures, which would cause half of all permafrost to thaw.

In contrast, with animal herds the ground would only warm by roughly 2.1 degrees – 44 per cent less, which would be enough to preserve 80 per cent of the current soils, as the model shows.

As a next step, Beer plans to collaborate with biologists, in order to investigate how the animals would actually spread across the landscape.

Photo credit: Larry Lamsa/ CC BY 2.0

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